Review: “Cardboard Piano”

Chris (Kearstyn Keller, left), the daughter of American missionaries, and Adiel (Adia Alli), a local girl in Uganda, prepare to exchange vows in a secret ceremony. Photo by Lara Goetsch

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company,
615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through March 17
Tickets: $40-$54
Phone: 773-281-8463 x6

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The title of Hansol Jung’s “Cardboard Piano,” which is enjoying an intense Chicago premiere at TimeLine Theatre, comes from a story told in the play. On the eve of the new millennium in a township in Northern Uganda, Chris (Kearstyn Keller), the teenage daughter of missionaries, is secretly celebrating her illicit marriage to her local girlfriend Adiel (Adia Alli) in her pastor father’s wrecked church. A 15-year-old wounded soldier named Pika (Freedom Martin) bursts in waving a gun and wracked with guilt about the unforgivable things he’s done. Chris comforts him by telling him about how she once asked her father for a piano and, since he couldn’t afford it, he made her a cardboard one instead. She was furious and smashed the gift to pieces, but her father meticulously put it back together so she could pretend to play again.

The moral, according to Chris, is that as long as things can be fixed, anything can be forgiven, and she proceeds to give Pika absolution. Jung expands on this in a program quote, noting that the deeper idea is “just the beauty of trying” when our goals don’t seem reachable and we build something to take the place of what we want, something that can give us satisfaction but won’t be perfect and can break.

Besides coming across as highly contrived, especially given the life-and-death stakes, this anecdote is problematic in other ways. The idea of a cardboard piano is absurd and negates the purpose of the musical instrument, so reconstructing it if it’s broken basically is pointless. If Jung were illuminating the futility of the situation in a country plagued by civil war and homophobia, it might make sense, but that isn’t the case.

The play begins and ends with a prayer, and she seems to be holding out hope. By appropriating Chris’s story in the second act, pastor Paul (Kai K. Ealy) trips himself up.

Act II takes place in 2014, and the church has been beautifully fixed up. The new pastor, Paul, is celebrating his second wedding anniversary with his wife Ruth (Alli), but they’ve had some trouble developing a congregation because of stories about a past murder. Paul also has ousted Adiel’s cousin, Francis (Martin), for his homosexuality, but Ruth has invited him over to make peace. At the same time, Chris returns after 15 years away, because she wants to plant her father’s ashes in the garden to grow a tree.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say the Chris’s presence precipitates a crisis with long and loud arguments between her and Paul about past crimes, the possibilities for forgiveness, and whom the church actually belongs to. We quickly learn that Paul has a secret even Ruth didn’t know, but she believes he is a good man and stands by him regardless.

The second act gets at the heart of the issues, but under Mechelle Moe’s otherwise astute direction, there is just too much yelling. The first act, on the other hand, begins with the oh-so-sweet wedding of Chris and Adiel, which they tape-record because they don’t have a witness. The tension rises with the arrival of Pika, and the violence really erupts – in both expected and unexpected ways – when the Soldier (a truly menacing Ealy) who has been brutalizing Pika comes searching for him.

While I don’t normally recommend reading the program before seeing a show—what’s on stage should stand on its own—if you don’t know much about Uganda, the notes provide useful historical, political, and social context on Joseph Kory and the Lord’s Resistance Army with its many child soldiers and the institutionalized homophobia spurred by European colonization and Evangelical Christians. This helps explain why Hansol combines the two topics in the play, something that may not be self-evident.

At the outset, it also wasn’t clear to me how old Chris is supposed to be in the first act. She’s only 16, which makes her unbridled passion and lack of forethought about her relationship with Adiel more understandable. For example, neither of them has a plan of what to do once they’re married. Chris wants to get out of there and perhaps go to Tunisia (thousands of miles away), though she doesn’t know how they’ll get there, but Adiel doesn’t want to leave her home town, even though they can’t live together openly.

Overall, the acting is strong, and the design is first-rate. Scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and lighting designer Brandon Wardell have turned the alley stage into a sanctuary that’s convincingly forlorn in the first act (the ceiling even leaks) and lovingly renovated and filled with flowers in the second. David Kelepha Samba’s sound design ranges from subtle to a raging thunder storm, and Elle Erickson’s costumes help define the characters nicely.

“Cardboard Piano” is at times powerful and moving, but like the title object, the play doesn’t come together in a way that really works.